They may have scored a victory at UNESCO, but the Palestinians are running into new obstacles on their push for statehood recognition at the United Nations.
The effort to pursue the issue at the U.N. Security Council has encountered a stumbling block in Bosnia, where the country’s Serbian co-president appears to have helped cost the Palestinians a crucial ninth vote.
Meanwhile, U.N. officials are sending a strong message regarding any further efforts to get U.N. agencies to follow UNESCO’s lead in granting the Palestinians membership: Please stop.
"I believe this is not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody," Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, said in a Nov. 3 interview with The Associated Press.
U.S. laws requiring an automatic cutoff in funds to U.N. agencies that grant statehood recognition to the Palestinians already have threatened massive cuts to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural and scientific agency.
“When an organization is not properly functioning because of a lack of resources, you have to think about the millions and millions of people who are being impacted and affected,” Ban said.
The Palestinians have taken heed. On Nov. 3, the day that AP published its Ban interview, Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said the Palestinians would stick to pursuing the Security Council option.
"The backlash that's coming from UNESCO, including from the secretary-general, made it clear it might be a risky counterproductive process to go to other agencies,” said Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “So for the time being they're concentrating on the Security Council.”
Pro-Israel officials said this should be a “duh” moment for the Palestinians, who had been clearly warned of the dangers -- not least by congressional appropriators. The appropriators had said repeatedly that cutting off U.N. agencies recognizing “Palestine“ was a matter not only of policy but law.
“Any agency that was considering the Palestinians will now not consider it,” said Tom Neumann, the executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. “There was no margin for wiggling out of it. The State Department is unhappy about cutting UNESCO, but they didn't have a choice.”
Israel and the United States say the only route to statehood for the Palestinians is through direct negotiations. The Palestinians refuse to return to talks until Israel freezes settlement building.
The Obama administration had made it clear that it would veto any Security Council bid. The Palestinians could have put the United States in the difficult position of having to use its veto in the Security Council by garnering nine votes from the council’s 15 members, the minimum required to approve a membership request. That, the Palestinians believed, would have been an important symbolic victory.
The Palestinians had secured the backing of China, Russia, Brazil, Lebanon, South Africa and India at the Security Council. Pledging to vote against or to abstain were the United States, Britain, France, Germany and close U.S. allies Colombia and Portugal. The U.S., Israel and pro-Israel groups had targeted the three countries that were seen as up for grabs: Nigeria, Gabon and Bosnia.
Nigeria and Gabon, both with close oil-based ties to the Arab world, reportedly moved into the Palestinian column, giving the Palestinians eight votes. That left Bosnia, a recipient of Western assistance that still nurtures hopes of joining the European Union.
The wild card for the Bosnians turned out to be its unique presidency, where U.N. votes must be approved. Three co-presidents represent the country’s major communities -- Muslim, Croat and Serb.
The Muslim president reportedly favored statehood recognition, and the Croat’s position was not known. But the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, was adamantly opposed, and last week the president’s office announced that lacking unanimity, Bosnia would abstain.
A request to the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington as to Palestinian strategies going forward went unanswered.
The Palestinians can still bring the case to the General Assembly, where they have the votes to achieve enhanced observer status, equivalent to the Vatican.
The setbacks to the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy do not mean that the issue of Palestinian statehood is off the table, said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Absent the diplomatic route, he warned, the Palestinians might press for statehood through violence.
“There's a frustration that it's not on the Israeli agenda, it's dropped from the American agenda and they have to do something to put it back on everyone's agenda,” Alterman said.
The alternative to progress toward statehood could be the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, under pressure from a populace that is fed up with its diplomatic failures, said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, an Israeli strategic policy think tank.
Speaking Tuesday in Denver to JACPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, at a session convened during the Jewish Federations of North America's annual General Assembly, Grinstein said that Israel and the United States should embrace the Palestinian U.N. bid as a means of avoiding what he said would be a disaster.
"Instead of fighting the Palestinian motion in the U.N., embrace it and work for it," Grinstein said. "There's a lot of risks on this option, but are there lesser risks with a Palestinian Authority that could implode?"